Friday, September 16, 2011

 

The Gated Community College

If you have a kindle, or a kindle app, I really can’t recommend “The Gated City,” by Ryan Avent, highly enough. (It’s a “kindle single,” longer than an article but shorter than a book. English professors out there, what’s the nonfiction equivalent of a novella? I wouldn’t call it an “essay,” exactly. “Booklet” isn’t quite right. “Chapter” implies a larger whole, and “article” implies a larger volume. I’m stumped.)

Although it wasn’t written with community colleges in mind, it explains a lot about the community college world.

Avent argues that urban density, especially of the creative classes, is the key to improved economic productivity. (This isn’t an entirely new argument, of course -- Karl Marx famously referred to “the idiocy of rural life.”) He notes that certain cities with extremely high densities of creative people generate productivity gains wildly higher than other places. So far, so good.

Then he notes that over the last decade, population in those cities has mostly stalled or declined, while population growth has spiked in cities in which productivity growth is much slower. The culprit, which sounds abundantly right to me, is absurd housing costs in the most interesting cities. San Francisco is far more culturally interesting and economically stimulative than, say, Phoenix, but housing is much cheaper in Phoenix. Beyond a certain age -- that is to say, when they have kids -- many creatives decide that being able to afford a decent home is more important than being able to get Vietnamese food at three a.m. So they move from areas where they would have been more productive to areas where they will be less productive, because that’s where the affordable housing is.

Avent’s major policy solution is increased building in the San Franciscos and Manhattans of the world.

But to my mind, the fascinating part was the acknowledgement that creatives tend to cluster, and that the clustering comes with costs.

If your version of higher ed is the R1 world, you probably live someplace relatively interesting. Even second-tier four-year colleges and compass direction universities are often in clusters. (Boston leaps to mind, for example.) But community colleges are pretty much scattered across the country, by design.

That means that in the community college world, you’re more likely to land in a place where academics and creatives are relatively rare birds. On the upside, you may be able to afford a decent place to live. On the downside, you may feel very much like an exile.

Avent points out, correctly, that the gap between the cutting-edge places and the rest is growing, so the cultural cost of being in the hinterlands is increasing. Physically, Rockford is maybe an hour and a half from Chicago, but culturally they’re on different planets; in many ways, Chicago is closer to New York than to Rockford.

To the extent that the most productive cities are also the most income-stratified, I have real concerns for the future of the middle class. The productive growth that made it possible is rapidly deserting its natural habitat. And community colleges, often the only higher educational outposts in middle class areas, are left to swim against the cultural undertow.

Even though they’re often in much less interesting places, community colleges are defined by place much more than the rest of higher education. That tension can lead to some serious confusion as academics who were trained in interesting places land in the sticks and don’t quite know what to do with themselves. Their personal allegiances are to their disciplines, which have annual meetings in places like San Francisco or D.C., but their paychecks are from the taxpayers of wherever.

I’m not sold on the efficacy of Avent’s proposed solution -- it seems helpful enough, but far too small in scale -- but he really gets the description right. Not a bad way to spend two bucks.

Comments:
I’d expect to see a non-fiction piece of that length called a chapbook.
 
Monograph.
 
“That tension can lead to some serious confusion as academics who were trained in interesting places land in the sticks and don’t quite know what to do with themselves.”

I work at a college in a small Southern town. I am often struck by the contempt and condescension that some of our faculty display toward the community in which they have chosen to live. Many of our faculty, particularly the ones without kids in the local schools, tend to socialize only with each other rather than creating ties outside of the campus “bubble.”

This strikes me as detrimental in several ways. For one thing, it does nothing to change the impression that some faculty have of us locals as bunch of redneck yahoos. For another, it makes it hard for those faculty members to ever truly get away from work and college politics. And it means that townies think of our faculty as “those weirdos up at the college” instead of “my neighbor with the beautiful flower garden,” “my kid’s Little League coach” or “my buddy Jane.”

If academics would like their local communities to be more interesting, then the solution is to make those places more interesting, not to flee back to the metropolis or to huddle behind the castle walls.
 
This sounds a lot like Jane Jacobs's argument in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," a fantastic book, which itself was a reaction against the garden cities and planned cities of the turn of the 20th century. (However, she argued for smarter design, not more building.) Having grown up in SF, I'm highly skeptical of arguments that require increased construction; somehow, I don't see the country becoming like Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside."
 
If academics would like their local communities to be more interesting, then the solution is to make those places more interesting, not to flee back to the metropolis or to huddle behind the castle walls.

This assumes that those places want to be made more "interesting" - that's not necessarily true. I think the kind of tolerance and diversity most "creative class" people need is hard to find outside of big cities and that confounds the academic's integration into smaller communities. Also, without the family connections that tie many small towns together, academics never have a chance to integrate unless they marry in – which if they are a person of color or an atheist/agnostic might be really difficult. Abortion has become de facto illegal in many Southern and Midwestern states, there are real reasons why women and parents with daughters would not want to live in those communities.
 
The fact is that not everyone who feels like a creative can live in one of the acknowledged clusters...and we find ourselves spread out in places even less glamorous than Phoenix.

The CC is the perfect hub for mini-clusters. A college - any college - can cultivate and nourish the innovative, the cultural or the academic for the locationally challenged. How very intellectual to notice that some folks are born to superior circumstances. For the 341 million Americans not born in NYC, The muse is just different - it has to be.

West Local Community College can't provide the 3am Vietnamese food, but we do have thought provoking classes, opportunities for travel, seminars, concerts, art shows and the like. Rather than lament our impoverished creative circumstances, we are building an oasis.
 
We lived in a slow, very small Midwestern city.

And both Ivory and Dawne Spangler have good points about this sort of environment.

On the upside, they did have quite a nice, if tiny, arts and culture scene. And because it was so small, it was accessible. We live in the D.C. burbs now, and sometimes I don't even know where to begin with all the resources available to us. While our friends back in Midwestern Small City are running the seminar and having the author over for dinner. Talk about learning experiences for the kids.

On the downside, whenever you'd meet a true local, they'd immediately try to put you in local context. Whose family are you related to? What high school did you go to? What church do you go to? And if all your answers point back to godlessness and the East Coast, it's going to be harder to make friends and harder, even, to get a job (outside of academe). It's not that they weren't friendly, they sure were, but you could see the gate coming down when you admitted you weren't tied in a historic way to their native soil at all. This was true even for our blindingly white and mainstream family; I'd not want to face it also being brown or queer or whatever.
 
"West Local Community College can't provide the 3am Vietnamese food, but we do have thought provoking classes, opportunities for travel, seminars, concerts, art shows and the like. Rather than lament our impoverished creative circumstances, we are building an oasis."

Right on, Dawn. Do for self.

I like visiting places like NYC and San Francisco, but you couldn't pay me enough to live there. I am not a member of the creative class, at least by Avent's lights, but I am interested in art, theater, literature and culture--as are many of us who live outside of the metropolis.

I mentioned in my previous post that some of our faculty seem to look down upon the place where they live. I should also have mentioned that others on our faculty take the opposite tack. They give presentations on their research at the public libary. They serve on the boards of local non-profits. They work with our community theatre. They volunteer at the foodbank. They have made this place their home, and our community is richer for it.
 
Douglas Reichert Powell's thoughtful book Critical Regionalism has an excellent chapter on exactly these issues, in which he writes this: "While academics are encouraged to see their surrounding communities, especially if they are exurban spaces, as isolated, unproductive sites, they are at the same time encouraged to see themselves as disconnected not only from the particular places in which they are located but from the concept of place altogether." This is the bigger problem built into the way our own professional mobility is designed to work: we're all organised according to some great scholarly elsewhere, even as we shop and eat and drive our kids to school right here, wherever here is.

But despite this we may already have more effective and mutual forms of engagement than some of the larger institutions in metropolitan clusters--could finding better ways to talk across regional institutions help us realise this?
 
So our system of using power games to deny productive people the fruits of their wages has a downside?

Astonishing.
 
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